The film Singles has been in my life a long time. I first learned about it through a reference made in an online journal post by the dude who would eventually become my least favorite ex. He was nine years older than me and he said that Singles was the movie that defined love for his generation. The film asserts that love is not about grand gestures or beautiful rhetoric, it’s about parking spaces. I suppose this struck him as deep. I bought a copy of it in the hopes of better understanding him, and despite the ugliness that followed between the two of us, Singles has stayed on my shelf. I’ve watched it in many contexts and shared it with many peers that I am close to. I’m reviewing it here now because I felt like watching it again recently, and because it’s high time this blog ventured into comedic territory.
Singles was originally released in 1992, making it a film that my older sister would have been more likely to have seen at the theater than I would have – I would have been a little young to care about supposedly timeless truths about dating. At the time, the costuming would have been unremarkably fashionable. Nowadays, it marks Singles as a period piece about the Seattle grunge scene (the extensive concert footage at the clubs where people headbang, dance awkwardly and occasionally bodysurf also helps in this regard, as does the cameo by Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder). Even when I first watched Singles, more than ten years ago, it was starting to feel dated. It’s not aging too badly, but not too well either; is “aging mediocrely” even a thing?
The other noteworthy mise en scène element of this film is the casting choices, the actors selected. Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon play the leads of this ensemble cast and what I was truly amazed at, after being inundated with Hollywood’s exaggerated sexiness and beauty over the course of my adult life, was how ordinary these beautiful people looked. They’re still beautiful people, but they’re the sort of beautiful people one easily encounters in day to day Midwestern life. The only time I’ve seen standard Hollywood-quality beautiful people grace my existence with their presence in the past twenty years has been when a rare pharmaceutical sales representative has happened to be in a doctor’s waiting room at the same time as me. Briefly. The cast of Singles doesn’t look like that. The actors look approachable. It’s a relief.
Remember how I said in my review of Arbitrage that I got a lot of fun out of watching the characters tick through tough choices based on their ethical alignments? Singles is another film about alignments, but not those that deal with ethics. Well, somewhat. Singles is about different relationship styles. Which ones are compatible. Which ones definitely are not. The problems a person encounters when wading through the dating world without being explicit with partners regarding, or sometimes even aware of, one’s own style and one’s expectations regarding the style of a partner.
I’m married. Happily. My husband and I met through a free dating website. This website, which I shall leave nameless because this is a film review not free advertising for anybody, placed a lot of emphasis on understanding the different styles that are out there, identifying one’s own style, and looking for compatibility of styles. After spending so much time hunting for a mate in their system, I can’t watch Singles without identifying the relationship styles of these Seattle twentysomethings lost in time from twenty years ago. The two “main” characters (remember, this is an ensemble cast) exemplify what happens when a “Wild Rose” (Deliberate Brutal Love Dreamer, Kyra Sedgwick’s character) pairs off with a “Loverboy” (Random Gentle Love Master, played spot on by Campbell Scott). The mismatch between Bridget Fonda’s “Sonnet” (Deliberate Gentle Love Dreamer) and Matt Dillon’s “Manchild” (Random Brutal Love Dreamer) is painful to watch, and the “surprise ending” for these two characters comes across as forced and unrealistic. Note that I said Random Brutal LOVE Dreamer for the character of Cliff Poncier. At first blush he appears to be a Random Brutal Sex Dreamer, or the “Last Man on Earth”, but the only way to incorporate the end of his storyline with Janet is to understand that the swaggering horn-dog approach he takes for most of the film is just a macho posture. Even when Janet is in her needy phase early in the film, when Cliff finds her smothering and easy to neglect, he is also still attracted to her. To some extent just because he likes attention, but I think on a deeper level even Cliff is looking for love. It’s harder to see for his character than it is for Debbie (played comfortably by Sheila Kelly), the other character who looks away guiltily when Janet announces that casual sex is lethal. Debbie is clearly a woman who uses sex as a commodity when looking for love, which is unfortunate but a classic amateur mistake. I’d say she’s most likely a Random Gentle Love Dreamer or “Window Shopper”.
Just as in my post for Arbitrage I decided to spend some space talking about my respect for Susan Sarandon, in this post I’d like to discuss my feelings about Bill Pullman. Pullman has been in many feature films over the years, ranging from the role of the comic hero in Spaceballs, to the President of the United States in Independence Day, to the dark and disturbing role I will always love him for: Fred Madison in Lost Highway. Yet if you say the name “Bill Pullman” to the average Joe on the street, I would wager that average Joe would not be able to connect a face to the name. Pullman can carry the role that a feature film’s plot hangs on, the star role of the film, and somehow maintain an anonymity. To use a gaming analogy, he’s like the GURPS of film actors. If I’m going to enjoy the story being told for other reasons, including plot, themes, and characterization, Pullman’s good work will let me focus on those elements; but if I don’t like the other elements of the story – such as plot, themes, and characterization – Pullman’s work, while still good, will not save the film for me. He’s just not distinctive enough. So if you’re reading this, Bill, congratulations on being a solid workhorse of an actor and make sure your agent picks good artistic projects not the glorified action hero roles. Assuming you want to impress me.
Singles still works as a comedy. It has some nice, snappy dialogue, and believable characters that face predicaments that anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in the dating pool will find familiar. But it is definitely dated. I’m not sure to what extent the creative team behind it wanted to create a period piece, versus to what extent they wanted to create something timeless. If they were looking to create something timeless, I would say they pretty much failed. But if you like the grunge movement and other aspects of 1990s culture, you should probably watch this one. Then again, you probably have already.
Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5.